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For nearly two weeks now, the world has been gripped by heart wrenching scenes of suffering and mass exodus of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the scourge of Russia’s invasion. The UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) estimates at least two million refugees have fled Ukraine and expects that number to double as the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate, making this the most severe European humanitarian crisis, possibly since the end of World War II. According to UNHCR, Poland, which shares a large border with Ukraine has received more than half of the fleeing civilians so far while other European countries, including Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, have taken in varying numbers of refugees. The same agency also reports that Russia and Belarus have received approximately 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, presumably from the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that recently declared independence from Ukraine with Russian backing.
Israel has taken a somewhat muted position on the Russian invasion in Ukraine, pushing the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine to complain to the Israeli ambassador in Kyiv that “you’re treating us like Gaza.” But Israeli-Ukraine relations are by no means damaged. The Israeli Prime Minister has tried to play mediator between Russia and Ukraine; a move welcomed by the Ukrainian President.
Israel has also received some Ukrainian refugees. But this show of humanitarian empathy comes with strings attached, namely limiting the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians seeking refuge in Israel. At the outset of the crisis, Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorptions issued a statement announcing its preparedness to receive up to 10,000 Jewish Ukrainians. “We call on the Jews of Ukraine to immigrate to Israel,” the statement said. The call is centered in Israel’s highly controversial “Law of Return,” adopted in 1950, which grants Jewish citizens of any country, as well as their spouses, children, and grandchildren automatic citizenship in Israel.
Israeli and international human rights organizations charge that this law is highly discriminatory, especially against Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinian citizens of Israel who are denied the right to return to their historic homeland and villages. It is one of 65 discriminatory laws in Israel that specifically discriminate against Palestinians, including the “Nation-State” law and the Citizenship and Entry into Israel law, human rights organizations say. In 2019, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism voiced concern over the lack of a prohibition of racial discrimination, pointing to some of these laws as examples, and stating that “policies or practices which severely and disproportionately affect the Palestinian population in Israel proper and in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” should be dismantled.
The “Law of Return” is also problematic and controversial inside Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Of particular sensitivity is the fact that the law adopts a strict definition of who is a Jew, alienating many in the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities around the world. This contentious issue reached the Israeli Supreme Court, which handed down what was termed a historic decision in March 2021, affirming that “people who became Jews through Conservative and Reform conversions must be considered as Jews for purposes of the country’s Law of Return.” The ruling drew the ire of Aryeh Der’i, the leading figure in the Mizrahi ultra-orthodox Shas Party, who immediately tweeted that the decision was “wrong and troubling and would cause dispute and a powerful cleavage in the nation.”
The crisis in Ukraine has forced the Israeli Ministry of Interior to update its policy on applying the “Right of Return” law to spouses of Jewish Ukrainian refugees. Since Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave their country, the Israeli Ministry of Interior issued directives allowing non-Jewish spouses and children of Ukrainian Jews to immigrate to Israel on one condition: “that the eligible spouse or parent is a halakhic Jew.”
Israel’s Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked has complained that over 90 percent of Ukrainians arriving at Israel’s borders were not Jewish and that the influx of refugees “cannot go on.” But while the rightwing minister is coming under pressure to stop requiring Ukrainian refugees without first-degree Israeli relatives to deposit the equivalent of $3,050 as a condition of entry to the country, Shaked announced Israel would formulate “some sort of humanitarian cap” on non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees who are not eligible under the Law of Return. Shaked placed the cap at 5,000 while allowing an additional 2,000 Ukrainians who came to Israel prior to the outbreak of the conflict to stay. The priority, according to Shaked, remains refugees from Ukraine, Russia, and other neighboring countries that could be absorbed through the “Law of Return.” The decision drew outrage in Kyiv, with the country’s ambassador to Israel vowing to take up the matter to the Israeli High Court.
Despite these restrictions, Ukrainian refugees are faring better than others seeking refuge and asylum in Israel, particularly those fleeing wars in Africa. As Israel was pulling out families of Israeli diplomats from Ethiopia two years ago, roughly 8,000 members of Falash Mura, believed to be descendants of Ethiopian Jews, were left in refugee camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar – denied asylum in Israel under the “Law of Return.”
The Israeli National Security Council declared that there was no immediate urgency for their rescue. After much lobbying and pressure from Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community, the government agreed to take in the remaining number in November 2021.
Other asylum seekers from Africa weren’t as lucky. Between 2012 and 2013, Israeli lawmakers amended the 1954 “Infiltration Law” – originally drafted to bar Palestinian refugees from returning – to include African asylum seekers. Israeli media later revealed that the Ministry of Defense elicited the help of Israeli businesspeople with connections in Africa to strike deals with unstable and undemocratic regimes in the continent to receive these “infiltrators.” By 2018, the government announced plans to forcibly relocate Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to unnamed countries in Africa or have them face indefinite detention. The UN voiced its “concern”. Amnesty International called the policy “cruel.”
There is also a Palestinian dimension to Israel’s humanitarian gesture towards Ukraine. In addition to the absolute Israeli prohibition on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, housing Ukrainian refugees will be at the expense of occupied Palestinian and Syrian land and in violation of their rights under international law.
The settlement division of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) has announced its intention to build 1,000 settlement housing units on occupied land including the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights, to house Ukrainian refugees. Illegal under international law, building and expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank is done by expropriating Palestinian land, demolishing homes, and displacing Palestinian families. According to the United Nations, approximately 1,204 Palestinians were displaced in the West Bank during 2021. It’s just another layer of irony weighing heavy on this battered region.